Cyberchurch Theology (part one of, um, more than one)

An “online church” is a collection of people who use the Internet to do the things that define a church, usually including worship, prayer, teaching, making friends and supporting each other. That’s a pretty broad definition, but it’s the best I can do: online churches are incredibly diverse. You can find “online churches” in just about every part of the Internet, from Twitter and Facebook to video-sharing websites, virtual worlds and old-school chatrooms, and they’re all gloriously different.

I’ve studied online churches for about six years. I really like them. You can have conversations online with folk you’d never meet locally, from different countries and different perspectives, and you can see incredible networks of honest sharing and generosity. You can also get into blazing rows at the drop of a virtual hat, of course – this is the Internet, after all – but that can be fun too.

Not everyone agrees with me, though. However sophisticated online churches get, whatever new parts of the Internet they find to grow in, they still make Christians REALLY uncomfortable. If you’re a Christian, and you’re writing a book about the Internet, you’ll almost certainly end up throwing in a grumble about online churches. Online-church-bashing has become one of the most predictable and unimaginative clichés of Christian writing about technology. Even the Pope has had a go.

Patrick Dixon is going to be the keynote speaker at the Christian New Media Conference this year, so let’s start with him. Way back in 1997, he wrote a book called Cyberchurch. It’s not a bad book for its time, but when he starts talking about online churches, he really goes to town. This is ‘superficial Christianity’, without human obligation, it’s unbiblical and inadequate, and it ‘can never replace face-to-face human relationships – never be a substitute for fellowship and Christian community.’ Ouch.

Fast-forward to 2011, and Christian writers are still churning out the same arguments. Tim Challies is a well-known blogger who has written a book called “The Next Story”. And goodness me, he REALLY hates online churches. ‘The virtual church is NOT the real church’ – it’s all about control and convenience, rejecting ‘true presence’ and ‘the truest manifestation of love’. Online church ‘is NEVER a replacement for the real thing’, and that’s that. Even the corny old line about “virtual Gnosticism” gets an airing: online churches ignore our bodies, and that’s heresy.

What’s going on here? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. Online churches feature in these books (I’ve only mentioned two, but there are lots) as a symbol for everything that scares these writers about the Internet: selfishness, disconnection, distraction, disembodiment. Lock up your keyboards!

I’m going to write a few posts about online churches, looking at some of the different arguments made against them and seeing how they stand up to the evidence. For now, I’ll just make one point. If you want to criticize a kind of church, then at the very least – the very, very least – you have to do some homework. Visit that church, find out what it’s like, talk to churchgoers, read some of the academic research. Christian books about the Internet still rely way too much on assumptions, guesswork and lazy thinking, repeating old arguments instead of checking them. Dixon and Challies write off online churches without looking at them. We have to do better.

About Tim Hutchings

Tim works at CODEC, a research initiative for the study of Christian communication in the digital age at St John's College, Durham. He studies online churches, online evangelism and other online things, and can usually be found somewhere near the coffee machine. He likes cake, old science fiction book covers and kitschy religious knick-knacks.